How misinformation affects what we buy

Misinformation isn’t just blurring political lines anymore. It’s quietly infiltrating our shopping trolleys in subtle ways, shaping our decisions about what we buy and who we trust.

Spurred by political events, misinformation has garnered widespread media coverage and academic research. But most of the attention has been in the fields of political science, social psychology, information technology and journalism studies.

More recently though, misinformation has also gained traction among marketing and consumer experts. Much of that research has focused on the direct impacts of misinformation on brands and consumer attitudes, but a new perspective on the topic is now emerging.

What if the influence of misinformation extends beyond explicit attacks on brands? What if our choices as consumers are shaped not only by deliberate misinformation campaigns but also by subtle, indirect false information?

My own research has explored the dynamics of misinformation from a consumer standpoint. I have looked at how misinformation spreads, why people find it credible and what we can do to try to mitigate its spreading. However, my latest study looks at direct and indirect forms of misinformation and their consequences for brands and consumers. I have found that one of the major consequences of these types of misinformation is the erosion of trust.


Direct and indirect misinformation

Misinformation comes in direct and indirect forms. It can be direct when it purposefully targets brands or their products. Examples of direct misinformation include fabricated customer reviews or fake news campaigns targeting brands.

It was fake news that led to the ‘pizzagate’ scandal in 2016, for example. This involved unsubstantiated accusations of child abuse against prominent individuals linked to a Washington DC pizzeria. While last year, the brand Target was falsely accused of selling ‘satanic’ children’s clothes on social media.

The consequences of direct misinformation can be far reaching, leading to a breakdown in brand trust. This erosion is particularly pronounced when misinformation originates from seemingly trustworthy sources, forcing brands into crisis management mode.

For example, in late 2022, Eli Lilly’s stock price fell by 4.37% after a fake Twitter account impersonating the pharmaceutical company falsely announced that insulin would be given away for free. Investors were misled and the company was forced to issue multiple statements to regain their trust.

But beyond the realm of blatant brand attacks, lies a subtler, less understood territory that I call ‘indirect misinformation’. This type of misinformation doesn’t zero in on specific companies, but instead cloaks itself in issues like politics, social affairs or health issues.

The constant exposure to misinformation around issues like COVID-19 and politics can have a ripple effect. And my research, which reviewed the academic marketing literature on direct and indirect misinformation, argues that this constant barrage has the potential to impact consumer choices.

Consider the two distinct levels where these effects unfold for a company. At the brand level, reputable names may unwittingly find themselves entangled in disreputable fake news sites through programmatic advertising, in which automated technology is used to buy ad space on these websites. And while the misinformation itself might not directly impact brand trust, the association with dubious websites can cast a shadow over attitudes to brands. It can also impair consumers’ intentions towards the brand.

Simultaneously, at the consumer level, the impact of indirect misinformation is profound. It breeds confusion, doubt and a general sense of vulnerability. Continuous exposure to misinformation is linked to decreased trust in mainstream and traditional media brands, for example.

Consequently, people might become wary of all information sources and even fellow consumers. Subconsciously influenced by misinformation, they may make different purchase decisions and hold altered views of brands and products.


What can brands do?

While the negative repercussions of direct misinformation on brand trust have been well documented, shining a light on the subtler impacts of indirect misinformation marks a crucial step forward. It not only opens new avenues for researchers but also serves as a warning to brands. It urges them to be more proactive in their approach to misinformation.

If indirect misinformation makes consumers mistrustful and sceptical, brands could take pre-emptive measures. Tailoring specific marketing communications to instil trust in brands, products and offers, becomes paramount in a world where trust is continually under siege. Building - and maintaining - a reputation for trustworthiness is essential for companies.

As we navigate this terrain of hidden influences, the call for a more comprehensive understanding of misinformation’s multifaceted impacts also becomes clearer. Researchers, brands and consumers alike need to decode the hidden messages of misinformation. This could help to fortify the foundations of trust in an era where it has become a precious commodity.

Giandomenico Di Domenico
Lecturer in Marketing and Strategy
Cardiff University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license

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